Into the Woods – A Review

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When I was younger, I was mindlessly flipping through the channels one day (as I was wont to do) when I came across a staged version on Into the Woods on PBS’ American Playhouse. I was instantly enchanted; I’d been lucky enough to be exposed to theater from our high school theater group and the occasional traveling production, but I’d never seen Broadway caliber talent before. My high school peers did a hell of a job and for a school in upstate New York we had pretty stellar production value, but they couldn’t hold a candle to Bernadette Peters belting out a tune. Not only was the talent way better than I was used to, but I was immediately drawn into the story; the idea that Cinderella, Jack and Red Riding Hood could all co-exist in the same world was a completely novel and revolutionary idea to me. Into the Woods most certainly sparked my love of mashups and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the short story that I wrote that first convinced me that I might have some skill at writing involved playing around with the perspective in fairy tales and a bridge between Snow White and Jack in the Beanstalk. So Into the Woods was kind of seminal moment for me – it began my interest in Broadway musicals and inadvertently was part of the origin story for my lifelong interest in writing that culminated in this blog. So y’all should be sending a thank you note to Stephen Sondheim. Everyone else might have been falling over themselves of Les Miserables, but I was an Into the Woods girl. #teamSondheim Oddly, I have no recollection of ever mentioning my affection for Into the Woods to anyone; I think I was partially convinced that I was the only person who watched that episode of American Playhouse and I kind of liked it being my little secret.

Though watching Into the Woods was a fairly important experience for me, I wouldn’t call myself a fanatic. I never got the soundtrack and I never saw the musical performed live. In fact, I don’t think that I saw Into the Woods ever again after that initial viewing until recently and it was only in the last few years that I realized that it was available on DVD. So as much as I enjoyed Into the Woods and it made a distinct impression, I was a little fuzzy on some of the details. I knew the basic plot and remembered some of the songs, but I wasn’t going to win any Into the Woods trivia contests and most Sondheim purists would be unimpressed with my commitment to the classic.

Still, when I heard that they were making a big screen adaptation of Into the Woods, I was very excited and a little bit apprehensive. There were a lot of rumors flying around about what would make it into the film version and what would be cut, as well as the inherent challenge of moving a story from the stage. On the one hand, without the limitations of a stage production, the director of a film has a lot more options on how he or she wants to present things. On the other hand, sometimes what works well with the intimacy of the stage just doesn’t translate to the more removed medium of film; I’m sure that the fights in August Osage County were much more dramatic and raw on stage, but in the movie they were overdone and annoying. Figuring out how to keep the spirit and essence of the musical while making the transition is a difficult one. The fact that Disney was involved didn’t do much to allay my fears, as I worried that they would want to whitewash some of the darker elements of the musical to protect the images of characters that they have coopted and made their own to the tune of a hefty profit. Johnny Depp was also something of a wild card; I knew that he could sing, but he sometimes makes choice that result in it feeling like he’s in a very different movie than the other actors. Would his weirdness work or would it be too campy? I had similar concerns about Meryl Streep, who is obviously a great actress but who lately I have found edges toward being too big in her performances, especially when given the freedom that the role of the witch would provide her. There had been attempts to adapt this play for nearly twenty years and I was sincerely hoping that now that it was finally happening that the whole thing wouldn’t go off the rails.

Thankfully, Into the Woods really worked for me and I really enjoyed the movie. Overall, the changes that were made basically worked for me (more on that) and the actors all did a really great job with their performances – especially the actors who are not necessarily known for their singing. Nearly a week after seeing the movie I still have several of the songs running through my head. I think even those that are more devoted to the original production will be pleased. After how much I hated Les Miserables, it was nice to enjoy a big screen musical again.

In talking to people who have seen Into the Woods without the benefit of knowing the Sondheim original, there are a few things that you need to know going in:

  • This is a musical. You might think that is obvious, but I know several people who went to see Into the Woods without knowing this. I blame the early trailer and clips of the film that were used to advertise the film, since they tended to downplay the singing. Even the versions that did incorporate some of the songs did so in the background, so if you don’t know the film’s background I could see how you might not realize that Into the Woods is a full blown musical. But they start singing pretty much from the jump in this movie; so if you don’t dig musicals, you may want to mosey along.
  • Despite the focus on fairy tales, Into the Woods gets dark. Real dark. If you are you are expecting your typical take on Cinderella and company you are going to be shocked; the first hour or so sticks more closely to the traditional arc of a fairy tale, but Into the Woods looks at what happens after the “happily ever after” and spoiler alert – it ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Into the Woods may feature familiar characters like Cinderella, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood, but it also features murder, adultery, multiple people going blind (some more permanently than others) and death. So don’t go into this expecting all sunshine and rainbows just because you think you know the characters and their journey. The stage musical is actually darker, but Disney allowed the film to be messier than I anticipated.
  • This is not a Johnny Depp movie. Sure, Depp is in the film, but his role is really small despite what the ad campaign may try to tell you. So if you are going in expecting a whole lot of Depp, you might want to prepare yourself to be disappointed.

Now that that’s out of the way, Into the Woods brings several favorites from fairy tales into the same universe; the story begins with several characters longing for things – Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wants to go to the Prince’s (Chris Pine) festival, the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) want a child, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) wants his cow and best friend Milky White to produce milk so he and his mother (Tracey Ullman) won’t starve and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) wants bread to take to her Granny (hey – they can’t all be high stakes wishes). The Baker and his wife discover that their barrenness is the result of a curse put on them by a witch (Meryl Streep) as retribution for the Baker’s father’s sins. They can break this spell if they obtain four objects: the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold. This sets the characters on a collision course with each other in the woods as the Baker and his wife try to procure the necessary objects, Jack sets off to sell his cow, Cinderella flees from the Prince and Red Riding Hood fends off the advances of the Wolf (Johnny Depp). To say much more would be to ruin the fun of discovery, but just when they the characters think that they have everything they want, things go to hell in a hand basket thanks in no small measure to the arrival of a Giant.

Overall, the cast did a really great job; there wasn’t an off performance in the bunch. My minor concerns about Streep were unfounded and she pretty much killed it as the witch. Like, she was legitimately great in my opinion. I was also pleasantly surprised by Emily Blunt, who I really like but I wasn’t sure what she was brining to the table for a musical. She was fantastic as well and I really liked her delivery of some lines. She’s quickly becoming one of my favorites. But the true revelation was Chris Pine who was just amazing. The Prince is supposed to serve as comic relief and be a charming douchebag, and man Pine knocked it out of the park. I think I actually liked his version of “Agony” better than in the original, simply because his performance was so unexpected and they picked a hilariously ridiculous location for the number to be performed. I honestly didn’t think he had it in him to pull off this role as well as he did and he had me cracking up almost every time he was on screen. I also want to cite the moxie that Lilla Crawford brought to Little Red Riding Hood; the audience that I saw Into the Woods with was especially taken by her, calling her a “little bad ass.” I presume they meant that as a compliment.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Depp’s interpretation of the Wolf until I rewatched the original Broadway production and was reminded that the Wolf is supposed to be giving off something of a sexual predator vibe in his interactions with Little Red Riding Hood. If anything, Depp’s Wolf has toned down the innuendo a bit – I’d forgotten that the Wolf in the Broadway play had his genitals featured as part of the costume (the Wolf’s, not the actor’s). With that context re-established, I was more pleased with Depp’s performance and his choices. His lecherousness is toned down, partially I’m sure at the behest of Disney and partially because unlike the stage production, there are actual children playing the roles of Jack and Little Red Riding Hood and the song might be off the charts creepy when song to a young woman.

Some songs from the original production were cut, though in all honestly they weren’t really missed. “No More” is an important song in the stage production, but made little sense given other changes made in the film. The mysterious old man is not in the film, which frankly was an improvement in my book and made an already complex narrative a little les muddled. I was bummed that “Agony (reprise)” was cut, not because it was essential to the story – it certainly isn’t – but because I would have enjoyed more singing Chris Pine. The song reinforces the cad that the Prince is, but I understand their decision to eliminate it. There was also an original song for Meryl Streep that was written for the movie and filmed, but it ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor as well (though it will be on the DVD).

My main issue with the film adaptation is the changes that they made to Rapunzel’s story line. This is where I suspect the fingerprints of Disney are the most apparent, though I wish that they had stuck with the original story. The film version changes how her story is resolved and the result is a weakening of the overall story; the witch’s reaction and the song “Children Will Listen” don’t really work thanks to the edits that they’ve made. Her story has little to no weight in the film and she just abruptly disappears from the narrative. If you don’t know how it was supposed to go, you’ll still notice that something about her arc feels unresolved and the resolution feels tacked on and rushed. This is the one change that I wish they hadn’t made, not out of bling loyalty to the source material, but because I think that the edits made are detrimental to the film as a whole. If executed better or with more explanation it might have worked, but as is it was the one misstep in an otherwise very enjoyable movie. Though, for what it’s worth, I always thought Rapunzel’s storyline was one of the weak points of the stage version as well.

Some other thoughts:

  • Christine Baranski and Lucy Punch have small roles as Cinderella’s step-mother and step-sister, respectively. Always nice to see both of them. Cinderella’s father doesn’t make it into the film adaption, but I don’t think anyone will miss him.
  • Giants are surprisingly easy to deal with. And that means that the big climax of the film doesn’t really deliver. That was a problem that I had with the stage version as well, but the problem is only exasperated in the film. It’s all a lot of buildup to nothing.
  • I really like the decision to move the location of where the song “On the Steps of the Palace” is sung. Makes more sense, is visually more interesting and is just one example of the movie having more flexibility than the stage play.
  • Did everyone else know that Chris Pine’s dad was on CHiPs? I just found this out thanks to The Tonight Show and it blew my mind.
  • My favorite line of the entire movie/play may be “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”

Into the Woods is a very enjoyable adaptation of a fairly beloved Broadway musical; it’s relatively faithful to the original and most of the changes made were fairly minor and helped to streamline the story. If you liked the play, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with the execution of the film; the cast all do a fantastic job in bringing these characters to life. If you aren’t familiar with Into the Woods but enjoy musicals or creative takes on fairy tales, I think you’ll be satisfied. If you don’t like musicals, I’m not sure why you’re going to see Into the Woods. Reevaluate your decision making process. Into the Woods is a fun movie that kept me entertained and rekindled my love for the stage version. I only had a few quibbles with the film, primarily that I can’t get these songs out of my head.

Into the Woods is currently in wide release.

Pop Culture Odds and Ends – No A/C Edition

So as I mentioned yesterday, I’m spending the week in training for my job. It somehow feels longer than a day at work, which may have something to do with the fact that we are trapped in a second floor classroom that doesn’t have any air conditioning. You read that right – 9 hours a day the second week of July in a room that doesn’t have a/c. The room doesn’t even have screens on the windows, which at least means some semblance of a breeze is generated when people swat flies away. It’s hard to concentrate on the finer points of project management when you are ready to pass out. I may just have to roll a cooler into class with me tomorrow.

While I consider options for beating the heat, enjoy your bi-weekly roundup of pop culture stories.

  • Jenny McCarthy is a possible new host on The View. There are multiple hosting seats available – Elizabeth Hasselbeck is headed to Fox News, Joy Behar is also leaving and Barbara Walters is retiring.
  • Ha! An Arrested Development fan put George Michal’s internal clock to the test:

Well played Arrested Development. Well played.

  • Dane Cook is going out on a stand-up tour, his first in four years. I saw him on his last tour; here’s to hoping he improved over the hiatus.
  • Chris Pratt is getting seriously ripped for his role in Guardians of the Galaxy.
  • I’m still sad that no one would take me to the Phish concerts last weekend; they did a first time ever cover of “Energy” by The Apples in Stereo:

 

  • Jay-Z’s domination continues – not only did he singlehandedly get the RIAA to change how they count sales, but the MTV movie awards are getting a special statue for their Brooklyn debut. I have no proof that Jay-Z had anything to do with the Moonman remodel; let’s just call it a hunch.
  • Speaking of Mr. Carter, turns out we share a cereal preference:

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  • Jerry Seinfeld did a Q&A with Jimmy Fallon’s audience:

 

  • I’ve always wanted to go to Universal theme park for Halloween, but now that they are doing a Cabin in the Woods themed maze I REALLY want to go. As you may recall, I was a fan of that movie.
  • Chucky’s back – a new Child’s Play film will come out this fall:

 

  • A new poster for Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake has been released:

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I’m still not totally on board with this project.

Firth deserves better. This Mr. Darcy is CREEEPPPPPYYYY

Firth deserves better. This Mr. Darcy is CREEEPPPPPYYYY

 

  • This slowed down version of the Seinfeld theme is kind of terrifying:

 

  • Pearl Jam announced a North American tour this fall. In other news, I will be traveling to Buffalo, Worchester, Brooklyn, Philly, Hartford or Baltimore this fall on “unrelated” business.
  • James Gandolfini’s legendary generosity continues after his passing; the actor left $500,000 to a friend with an autistic son.
  • David Beckham’s career recreated in LEGOs is impressive:

 

  • The Flintstones and Hong Kong Phooey may get revamps. My childhood continues to get ravaged.
  • Tumblr of the week: Icorns (celebrities as corn on the cob)
  • Anchorman gets the 8 bit treatment:

 

  • Spongebob makes everything better:

 

  • Turns out that I’m not the only person that noticed the Macy’s 4th of July fireworks show “curated” by Usher featured…..well, a lot of Usher.
  • These Game of Thrones mini LEGO figures would look nice to my Walter White and Omar Little figure on my desk. It is really amazing that they give me any responsibility at work – between the bobbleheads, Yankee paraphernalia and other toys, my office doesn’t exactly scream professionalism.
  • I can’t decide if this maid of honor toast is fantastic or terrible. One the positive side, it is original and memorable. Negatives are that it takes attention away from the bride and it is hard to understand. You decide.

 

  • Businessweek (of all places) has an infographic comparing how much money rappers say they have vs. how much money they actually have. Pitbull – your pants might be on fire.
  • Set your DVRs everyone – SyFy debutes Sharknado tomorrow night ( and who doesn’t love a tornado comprised of sharks?).
  •  Is it plagiarism if you steal from yourself? Aaron Sorkin likes to recycle his own dialogue:

 

  • Tomorrow (Thursday) is 7/11 day – head to your local franchise of the convenience store for a free Slurpee.
  • I’m bummed that there is a rift between the band members of The Civil Wars. I like them.
  • Jessica Simpson gave birth to a baby boy, her second child in 14 months. If a celebrity gives birth and no one cares, did it really happen?

And, as always, we end with the supercuts and mashups

  • All the coffee and pie scenes from Twin Peaks

 

  • Johnny Depp does enjoy making weird faces:

 

  • Kevin James sure does fall down a lot:

 

  • A supercut of movie trailers that use the cliché “one man” reference:

 

When does the “in a world” supercut come out?

  • You thought I was out of “Get Lucky” mashups? You would be wrong:

 

  • Actually you would be doubly wrong:

 

  • A Game of Thrones/Gotye mashup (includes major spoilers if you haven’t watched season one yet)

 

  • I totally love this Kanye West/Depeche Mode mashup:

 

  • This Ginuwine/Kill Paris/Daft Punk mashup ain’t bad either:

 

  • This is outstanding – a mashup of The Lumineers “Ho Hey” and Will Ferrell’s Harry Caray impersonation:

 

  • And finally, this may be the greatest thing I’ve ever seen: a “Blurred Lines”/The Cosby Show mashup:

 

 

Stay cool, my friends.

The Lone Ranger – A Review

Here’s what I know about the Lone Ranger: He wears a mask. He has a pal named Tonto and a horse named Silver. He has his own theme music, courtesy of the William Tell Overture.

That’s it. And for thirty some odd years, that has been more than enough to get by.

Now, I respect a man with a theme song (a possible residual effect of growing up watching professional wrestling), but when Disney announced that they were dusting off the Lone Ranger for a feature film I was a bit perplexed. This is, after all, 2013 and I doubt that anyone under the age of 60 has any more of a working knowledge about the character than I do. The Lone Ranger had his heyday during the days of radio and early television; he’s not really on the radar of a generation of kids raised with the Internet and cable television. So I don’t think that there was a groundswell of support for this character to get an update. When most people heard that The Lone Ranger was getting the big screen treatment, I’m sure the general response was “who?”

In addition to The Lone Ranger being practically decrepit by pop culture standards, the franchise also has the added baggage of Tonto. When The Lone Ranger was created, people did not have the same informed and enlightened view of Native Americans that (I hope) we have today. What might have flown as acceptable in the early half of the 1900s is not necessarily the way to portray a character in the 2000s. Putting a character that speaks broken English and that could be seen as a caricature of a group of people seemed like a risky proposition to undertake; the chance of offending people should have been a real concern.  A delicate balance would have to be found between staying loyal to the source material and the times in which the stories were set and the culturally sensitivity of today. In my opinion, adapting The Long Ranger for a modern audience was an endeavor that was very high risk with a small chance for reward. If I had been a Disney executive, I wouldn’t have greenlit the project.

Now that I’ve seen the movie, I still wouldn’t have approved this movie – but for a very different reason. While I think that they avoided most of the potential pitfalls with Tonto, The Lone Ranger just isn’t a very good movie. The film has a bit of an identity crisis and with a running time of two hours and twenty minutes it is way too long. Some of the casting is questionable. But The Lone Ranger’s real problem is that it just is really boring.

Now, The Lone Ranger can only really be considered a super hero by the broadest definition, but the movie falls prey to one of the clichés of the super hero genre: the need for an origin story. It seems that you can’t have a Batman, Superman or Spiderman movie without some drawn out explanation of how Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent and Peter Parker made their miraculous transformation from regular person to crime fighting machine. The Lone Ranger sets out to explain how John Reid became “the man in the mask” and met up with Tonto, but it is all so drawn out and generally boring that I really didn’t care. Just slap a mask on the guy and be done with it. In my mind, the origin story that they cooked up has many unnecessary elements – did we really need the woman and the kid? – and actually leaves some of the more interesting questions unanswered – why, exactly, did Reid leave his family and the girl he loved nine years ago? The film cooks up an unnecessarily elaborate story about the railroad that takes way too long to really get cooking. It’s almost 2 hours into the film before we get to see The Lone Ranger really in action and by that time I just didn’t care. I started checking my watch 25 minutes into the film, which is never a good sign.

The film is tonally very inconsistent; it can’t quite figure out how to be an action story, a comedy and deal with the real life historical events respectfully all at the same time. It never quite gets the balance right resulting in a very uncomfortable juxtaposition of the slaughter of hundreds of Native Americans followed up by a joke. It was a cringe worthy moment – I can’t believe that anyone screened this movie and didn’t realize that there needed to be some distance between the two moments. That may be the worst example from the film, but the problem of tonal balance runs throughout the movie. The Lone Ranger has itself a bit of an identity crisis. These problems are compounded by the pacing – there are long periods where not much of anything is happening. Then there will be a short burst of excitement followed by a lot more boring stuff. There is no momentum in this film. Even when the big action sequence finally unfolds it doesn’t really work; since they saved up all the excitement for the end, there is so much going on that it is sensory overload. After sitting so much boring nonsense, my brain couldn’t handle a movie’s worth of action crammed into one twenty minute chunk. A more even distribution of the thrills would have been beneficial.

I generally like star Armie Hammer; I find that he has an affable screen persona and isn’t too hard on the eyes. He was pretty much the only thing that I liked about Mirror, Mirror, which I was forced to watch when the fools in the Academy for Motion Pictures decided to nominated it for an Oscar. He did a fine job as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. But it is pretty clear from The Lone Ranger that he isn’t quite up to carrying his own movie yet. As written and portrayed by Hammer, The Lone Ranger is kind of a doofus. He is a bit of a wimp for most of the movie and his stubborn refusal to use real violence through most of the film borders on the tedious. He’s tall, so he’s got that going for him, but otherwise there isn’t much hero material presented. If it wasn’t for Tonto, I don’t know if The Lone Ranger would be able to figure anything out. I still like Hammer – he seems like a nice enough guy – but I don’t think that he is movie star material. He’d probably be great in a rom-com or in a supporting role, but he just isn’t ready for the burden of carrying a movie.

Johnny Depp basically steals this movie as Tonto, but that’s kind of like taking candy from a baby. The choice to make The Lone Ranger kind of a dummy and Tonto the smart one is a bit of a reversal from the original incarnation of the characters and most likely was done to address some of the concerns that I raised earlier. Depp’s Tonto still speaks with somewhat broken English, but there is no doubt that he is the smartest guy in the room. Depp plays the character straight but with a sense of fun – he honestly seems to be the only person in this film having any fun. He has the best jokes in the film, but he also gets stuck trying to sell some questionable dialogue. Tonto has the same problems as the film as a whole – they can’t quite decide if he’s a jokester or if they should make him serious. The result is a half-measure that doesn’t fully work; I wish that they had just let Depp off his leash to do whatever he wanted. That probably wouldn’t have worked either, but at least it would have been more interesting to watch. The fact that Hammer and Depp have little to no chemistry also handicaps the film.

Some other thoughts:

  • If the whole purpose of wearing the mask is so that people don’t recognize you, you might want to shed the giant white hat that everyone made fun of you for wearing. Clark Kent wearing glasses is more effective than The Lone Ranger’s disguise; I don’t think a single person in the film was fooled.
  • The commercials for this movie give the impression that Helena Bonham Carter is in this movie way more than she is. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – I think Tim Burton has ruined her – but it is misleading.
  • I’m not even going to complain about the ludicrous plot and action sequences. This movie is what it is.
  • I’ll be interested to hear what Native Americans think of Depp portrayal of Tonto; I thought it was generally respectful, but I defer to their judgment. I’m sure an objection can be raised that this character should have been played by an actual Native American.
  • The film has a great supporting cast (Barry Pepper, Tom Wilkinson, James Badge Dale) but they really aren’t given much to do. The bad guys are just generic bad guys.
  • The character played by Ruth Wilson is sought after by several men in this film, but I honestly don’t see what all the hoopla was about. She’s pretty, but she isn’t all that and a bag of chips (though I may be influenced by her role as Alice on the BBC show Luther where she plays quite the psycho).
  • One of the previews before The Lone Ranger almost made me openly weep: Josh Holloway (the ever so dreamy Sawyer from Lost) is starring in a movie where he plays the coach of a dance team (and co-stars with Chris Brown – yup THAT Chris Brown).

Has it really come to this for Josh? Hollywood – you’re killing me. This man deserves better!

  • For the parents out there: This film is more violent than you would expect; they do shy away from showing some of the more gruesome action that is simply alluded to (one of the characters is also apparently something of a cannibal because why not?) but it might be more than you want your kids to see. There is also a trip to a whorehouse, but that is pretty PG.
  • The whole flashback narration part of the movie didn’t work for me at all – all that nonsense could have been cut and would have resulted in a shorter movie.

The 4th of July has been the launching pad for some very successful movies like Independence Day and Spider Man 2, but The Lone Ranger is closer to the box office disaster that was Wild Wild West (apparently westerns on the 4th of July are not a good idea). While this movie was terrible, it committed the larger sin of being boring.  The Lone Ranger is simply poorly executed; Johnny Depp does what he can, but the whole thing is pretty much DOA.  The new catchphrase for this movie should be “Hi-Ho Silver, take it away!”

The Lone Ranger opens nationwide today.